You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Cultural Theory’ category.

One page 116 of their book, Film Theory, Elsaesser and Hagener state:

[W]e do not experience any movie only through our eyes.  We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and carnal knowledge of our accultured sensorium.

Can the same be said about design? Do we have technology we view as an extension of ourselves — that we feel are a part of us?  Sure we have people out there who go as far as taking their laptop to the bathroom with them, but do we go as far as feeling their effect on us — not just physical, cause we would all be talking about eye strain, but an emotional effect, that when we see an item, it makes us happy or if it makes us sad?  McCarthy and Wright have their paper, Empathy and Experience in HCI and state,

[T]he empathetic approach, which builds on inspiration achieved from a rich understanding of people’s experiences, dreams, expectations, and life contexts and is developed through a meaningful emotional encounter between designer and user.

Maybe a lot of what we need to look for is beyond the surface.  An online community I am part of is For as morbid as it may sound, I have been working on putting together my family tree by linking where they are all buried.  To many people, the first time they may use this website, it may just look like a bunch of headstones, but when a person becomes part of the community, the emotional encounter between the designer of the group and I has become apparent.  Seeing these pictures and knowing these are people that helped shaped who I am today made me feel so much more than seeing a picture on the site, I felt connected to not only the people the pages memorialized, but also the people that helped put this network together — realizing there is so much more behind it than just what I see at the surface.


Angélica’s “The designs don’t exist…O_o” post is a good one, but a few words in particular stood out to me. I’m going to focus my entire post on the phrase that caught my attention, which, to be honest, doesn’t relate to the rest of her post at all. For some reason it fired a trigger in my brain; make sure to go read her post for her separate thoughts. Here’s the quote I’d like to discuss:

“…because at the end of the day, products sell (ughhh).”

My reaction to the last three words, or rather my lack of reaction, is what piqued my curiosity. At first read, I immediately agreed with the sentiment expressed – there’s something…distasteful about selling products. I carried right on to the end of the post, but something about that quote stuck in my mind.

It makes so much sense to me, that there’s something inherently nasty about the “market.” Our entire discussion last Thursday was predicated on the idea that the market/profit driven process is flawed in some way. If only we could design free of the pressures of the profit, we could unfetter our imagination of notions of commodification.

Why do we think this way about money? More importantly, why do I think this way about money?

Evidence of humans using items as a standard currency can be found dating back over 10,000 years. Coins were first minted around 700 B.C. in Lydia, India, & China (they all started doing it around the same time and separately). The Chinese first printed paper money in the 11th century. So, ‘currency exchanged for goods’ sure as hell is a persistent system.

And yet in our modern society, few ideas are more maligned – the acquisition of wealth is driven only by greed and the basest of desires. Many would describe the über-rich Wall Street Banker archetype as the ultimate arch-villain of our modern era.

Actually, there’s an easy answer to my question: thousands of years of abuse of monetary systems have created systematic distrust in the notion of currency and in those who make those systems their life’s focus. 

And yet nearly all of us are engaged in serious efforts to jump headfirst into this world of commodity and profit as professional UX designers & researchers. Am I required to swallow my discomfort and push my doubts aside about the very system that will support me and those I love for the rest of my life?

I think no. To me, the vilification of money is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the tail wagging the dog, a few bad apples spoiling the bunch…(I’ve got more). Like, an iceberg we only see the most extreme end exposed above the water (told you I had more).

Yes, there are evil people with way too much money. Yes, our glorification of money and capitalism is a fucked up lens through which to view the world.

No, we don’t have to let ourselves subscribe to that worldview. This is what I choose to do, and I hope you will too. There is another way to think about money.

The things we will design will feed the coffers of giant corporations. But that ignores everything that happens between you designing something and the profits going to the bank.

Somewhere in there, a real live person decided to spend her dollars on your design. Her dollars didn’t appear out of thin air before she handed them to the cash register. They were earned at the office, on the delivery run, on eBay. And she only has so many dollars left – just as money doesn’t appear from nowhere, it also isn’t an infinite resource. Her decision to spend her monies on your design is a serious one. It may have been quick, and perhaps not well thought through, but the decision to purchase will have implications that will ripple through her life for days, weeks, perhaps years. And as it affects her, it also affects the purchased item and the system that created that item. Her purchase is like a stamp of approval. In a way, her purchase is a small piece of influence.

Just as “money is power” in large quantities, it is power in small amounts too. Small power, but power nonetheless. Don’t discount the small power those for whom you design will have.

Raoul Hausmann. Der Geist unserer Zeit

Raoul Hausmann. Der Geist unserer Zeit. 1919 Used here under educational fair use only.

Right now, there is a text book that I very much regret selling back to the bookstore as we had a whole unit on the Dadaism Movement and its role in design and culture during the Weimar Republic.  This time period in Berlin has always been described as a period where the arts were able to flourish.  I have a paper written about this, unfortunately it is not written in English.

Dadaism, as defined on Wikipedia,

The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestos, art theory, theater, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. In addition to being anti-war, Dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.

Known as the anti-art, this is the same art movement which Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain came out of (  It was an era of critical design, where one did not really want to look at the past, but rather look at the future critically, asking if what they have now is the path they should be following and using art to find these new paths.  The movement stripped away the conventions of all traditional art, design, and politics in order to find their own future.  As seen in the piece of our time, titled Der Geist unserer Zeit, which translates to The Spirit of our Time,   Unfortunately, many who took part in the original Dadaist movement did not survive the Second World War and the philosophy ended when Nazism began.

So what’s my point? As written in the chapter by Ilpo Koskinen, part of the argument focuses on asking are designers also artists?  Koskinen points out, “As they key early publication, the Presence Project, related, ‘we drew inspiration from the tactics used by Dada and the Surrealists, and especially, from those Situationists, whose goals seemed close to our own” (91).  He later goes on to quote Dunne, where he said that designers must fight being labeled as artists (98), stating that “What we do is definitely not art in terms of methods and approaches, but that’s it…Art is expected to be shocking and extreme” (98).  Is critical design not shocking and extreme?  Would anyone look at Dunne and Raby’s Poo Lunchbox or Blood Bag Radio and just shrug their shoulders saying they were expecting this?  Shocking and extreme was at the center of Dadaism, a movement that helped form an entire culture, through both art, design, politics, theater all working together hand in hand in order to shape the future together — why do they all need to be separate now?  In Der Geist unserer Zeit, by looking at that image, can you see all of those things?

“‘Aesthetic delectation is the enemy to be defeated,’ Duchamp has said in connection with this genre of work, and the readymades, according to him, were selected precisely for their lack of visual interest.” Danto, page 72, PDF page 12.

But if the choice of objects was founded on their “lack of visual interest”, Duchamp is acknowledging their are also objects that are visually interesting. More simply put, if it’s possible to have a lack of something then it’s also possible to have an abundance of that same something. For Duchamp, that something is visual interest.

By admitting that some objects of aesthetic consideration are, in fact, beautiful, isn’t Duchamp giving validity and form to the extant framework of aesthetic delectation?

Have Duchamp, and subsequently Warhol, shot themselves in their collective philosophical foot?

I like Barnard’s feminism piece, because what he argues is not only very useful for my own research, but also very true. Perhaps even the best couple in the world, sometimes, will think like this, “What’s wrong with him/her? How can he/she think like this? I really don’t understand.” For example, I did a very simple “test”. Personally, I feel the figure 5.1 of flower patterns on p.105 is very nice: I like those flowers, leafs and how they are combined together. Then I showed it to my boyfriend but he did not like it. His words were: “Such a mess.” Similar meaning as “false principles of design.”

I agree that gender is an important factor to discuss in relation to why and how people act in either online or offline environments. Actually, many studies have shown gender differences in terms of men and women’s behaviors, communication patterns, psychology, etc. What I’m most interested in Barnard’s piece is his account of the nature of gender-based approach, “Where traditional history and design history are rooted in the idea of an objective science, dealing with facts that exist independently of the people doing the understanding, feminists approaches will stress the part of the understanding subject in the activity of understanding” (p. 94). Can we “understand” this as “gender-based approaches focus more on the personal horizons of the understanding subject than on the facts”?Because the facts on which gender-based approaches studies can be selected: These studies pay attention to objects, practices, institutions and personnel that is different from those prescribed by traditional mainstream and masculine history.

Another question I’m thinking about is whether or not Barnard includes (or suggests) the role of sexual orientations in his piece. I notice that he uses “gender identities” at times, and I assume that someone’s gender identity can be different from his/her actual gender, which might be related to his/her sexual orientation. But on p.115, he says, “[t]he understanding of mass-produced, …was seen to be dependent upon one’s gender identity, differing according to whether one was male or female.” In this context, he seems only talks about one’s actual gender, not his/her sexual orientation. His book was published in 2001, so I’m not sure whether he includes this implication in his book or not.

My last thought is whether Barnard’s account of feminist approaches can be applied to cultural approaches too. It seems these two approaches share a lot of common focuses, such as on the understanding subject’s unique “horizons”. For example, the “test” I mentioned at the very beginning might also be understood as cultural differences between two people: I’m asian and he is American.

This blog post is a reaction to Zach’s post from earlier today, “Molloy’s (Sexist?) Style Guide.”

I was surprised by Zach’s post and have been thinking about it all morning. The reason I am surprised is that it is obvious to me that the author is a feminist and that she is indeed condemning the patriarchy in Molloy’s manual and also the silly moral of Working Girl, which trivializes the challenges that women in the workplace faced (and still do).

So then I began wondering, well, why isn’t it obvious to Zach? He obviously read the reading and with some care. He obviously picked up on its themes and read them the right way. So there is no question that he somehow missed the whole point of the article–he did not. So the mystery remains: how could someone read and understand this article but remain uncertain as to the author’s feminist commitments?

And then I think I figured it out.

I have spoken all semester about there being two different proposals for what the Overall Point of a critical analysis is: understanding versus evaluation.

  • Understanding, the position represented in the Barnard (shoe) book, seeks to offer critical interpretations that help us see how it is that a given cultural phenomenon “works,” that is, how it becomes meaningful, what its underlying machinations are that make such a meaning possible or even likely. The understanding approach is about exposing something that is otherwise hidden (e.g., the genealogy and/or mechanisms of a cultural phenomenon); such exposure opens up the possibility of intervention, but often (as in this case) the implications for intervention are not made explicit or pursued–they are left to subsequent work.
  • Evaluation, the position represented in the Carroll (Brillo box) book, seeks to offer critical interpretations that help us appreciate the value (personal, social, cultural, aesthetic, material, etc.) of an art work. Evaluation typically takes (or at least strongly implies) an advocacy position, for example, “this work should/should not be included in a canon (or taught to high school children, or be placed in a museum, or sold for a lot of money at auction, etc.).”

Note that more or less everyone agrees that we need both; the debate is simply over which of these two impulses is more fundamental.

What’s happening here is that Entwistle’s article is written in what we might call the “understanding” paradigm. The whole article seeks to investigate the coming together of several discourses all at once–right around 1980–and seek to understand why they all came together in this way at this time. She makes very few explicit value judgments, e.g., statements like “as a feminist, I argue that Molloy’s work is oppressive to women.” However, the themes that organize the essay, specifically, the general concepts of identity and discourse, the construction of the “female executive” as a discursive subject, distinct from existing working female subjectivities (“secretary,” “showroom girl,” “factory floor girl”) specifically as an outcome of social discourses about women and “appropriate” roles, behaviors, and appearances of women in society, signals this work as feminist. And as a feminist work, critical attitudes towards patriarchy, ideology, alienation, and so forth are implicitly assumed and do not need to be expressed explicitly.

Another aspect of the understanding versus evaluation divide is the nature of the work being critiqued. For Carroll, he is talking about art, and art is supposed to be valuable. And more specifically, he is talking about making aesthetic judgments about art, i.e., saying what is artistic about art. Given that sort of claim (“F is an artistic feature of Work W”), it is easy to see why evaluation is foregrounded: if a work has many good artistic features, then we should appreciate and treat it as such by putting it in museums, educational curricula, etc.

In contrast to this, Entwistle has no aesthetic agenda in this article. She is not saying that women’s power suits are more aesthetic or more artistic than other forms of work clothing. Rather, she is trying to understand why this form of clothing emerged when it did, why that clothing was called “power dressing,” and what sorts of social meanings and implications it had. This is understanding. That patriarchy and repressive ideologies are at play (both in dressing manuals and in movies like Working Woman which paint overoptimistic and hence trivializing pictures of this complex social problem) is, of course, blameworthy from the point of view of a feminist. But that sort of evaluative statement remains tacit, and more explicit understanding-oriented statements are very heavily emphasized and foregrounded.

So, this reading immediately took me back to my childhood and all the films my mom liked to watch. I watched them by proxy much like I listened to Reba McEntire and watched endless hours of The Golden Girls and The Nanny. Anyway, on page 211 I started humming 9 to 5. It’s a pretty terrible song, and after some searching, I found the movie the song is featured in ala Dolly Parton.

Note the power dressing circa 1980 and oddly inserted window into the studio session with a scantily dressed Dolly Parton.

This reading got me thinking of movies as windows into culture and time periods. I like to do this activity for home movies, too. But to the point, this idea of the technological self is really intriguing as we externalize our identity, but it is very much shaped by the medium. How is the current technological age affecting our day to day appearances and identities? I read an article in the Economist today talking about the underwear language. that cited an article discussing how texting is shaping spoken Swiss German, so much so that the dialect is nearly unintelligible to German speakers. There is a process of shaping and being shaped here, and I am sure people better equipped with knowledge than myself have discussed it.

One more line of thought this reading provoked was the idea of the cultural development of visual language and how since we have this recorded medium, we can nearly watch the evolution and development unfold through different contexts of use. I kind of imagine different types of ‘power dressers’ all hanging around together and grouping themselves so the patterns emerge. Concerning this idea and relating it back to my area of interest, Info Vis, this language is developing and is observable. I’m thinking of historical and situational contexts of use for instance with pie charts. Pie charts have become over-used and misused so that the community rejects them. However, they didn’t start out so hated (insert history lesson here). Maps have different contexts of use that have evolved over time starting with literal navigation purposes, to then being re-appropriated to navigate abstracts fields of thought. This is rough, but I just wanted to share some of my musings inspired by the reading. I’m sure they will get revisited soon.

I can’t recall whether I’ve written about the mirror stage on the blog before. If I have, then this is going to sound a bit redundant (only a bit, though..) and if I haven’t, hurray!

Jacques Lacan originated the mirror stage and illustrated it with a narrative about an infant (between 6 and 18 months of age) beholding its reflection in a mirror and being struck by the discordance between its felt imperfections and the perceived perfection of the mirror image looking back at it. The image looking back at it is a gestalt (through the infant’s eyes) in that is it “perceived as a unified whole,” in contrast with the felt fragmentation.

We confront gestalts all the time. Maybe multiple times a day. The best example I can think of (because it’s the one someone used to explain it to me) is a model in clothing magazine. The clothes seem to fit him/her perfectly. Not an odd fold or wrinkle in sight. It makes me want to buy the clothes so that I can feel the way that model looks: unified and whole.

As I made my way through the Entwhistle reading, I couldn’t help but think about the “professional woman” as defined by Malloy as a gestalt and what troubling implications that such a conception carries with it: wholeness (in this case) for women is defined by a man, wholeness (in this case) is masculine whereas fragmented is feminine, wholeness (in this case) is heterosexual…I’m sure there are others, these are just the few standouts in my memory.

What I find so interesting about all this is that a fashion movement – if I can call it that – presented as a means to advance women in the workplace seemingly masks (or maybe it doesn’t) its perpetuation of patriarchy and inequality.

If we try to match cinema and interaction design in a 1:1 mapping way, maybe it is really hard to say yes. But step back and look at interaction design just as a member of the new media family will help us to understand the author’s propose.

When cinema art came out it changed the way how the previous static media (i.e. printing) told stories. Similarly, when computer enters our everyday life and we are experiencing the changes digital media has brought to us, interaction design has been changing the way how traditional media (i.e. printing and cinema) tells the stories. I used the word “story” because I think no matter it’s printing, cinema or computer, the people behind the “interface” is trying to create dialog with us.

And actually even though not all of us agree with the metaphor the author is using, we are actually doing a similar job as a book editor or a film director because we are creating dialog, we are telling stories, we present information and we want to make changes even though we didn’t realize that. The difference is we give people more controls and we don’t direct their thoughts, we surport their intentions and make use of technology to make all of these happen.

So in this way the metaphor of whatever printing or cinema or any other types of traditional media really makes sense. The detailed method and tool and process are different but we can really find out how new media inherit the others’ languages and develop its own. And this can also help us to think about our role and responsibility as interaction designer.

I really enjoy reading Manovich. It is interesting that I have never thought about why those computer interfaces were designed like what they look like, such as folders, overlapping windows, desktop. Before that I had a vague idea that they may be representations (or metaphors) of something in our offline world, but I never concentrated on the “why” behind them. Manovich indeed reminds me of those old days when I used DOS, which basically followed the so called tradition of “printed word”.

I agree with Manovich that we are not interfacing to a computer but to culture encoded in digital form. Cultural interface, or “human-computer-culture” interface seems a digitalization and embodiment of cultural objects. Although the world is undergoing a trend of economic and technological globalization, diverse forms of participation, values and interests still shape Internet technologies, which is called as a “culturally specific kind of modernity” by Lo (2009). The interfaces are usually designed in accordance to social norms, social frames, and expectations in the offline societies; otherwise they may not be applicable or understandable. In this sense, “cultural interface” can be considered as a changing “social entity”, thus contributing to the reinforcement and development of nation power.

As a closing remark, I would like to cite my favorite text from Manovich: “The language of cultural interfaces is a hybrid. It is a strange, often awkward mix between the conventions of traditional cultural forms and the conventions of HCI—between an immersive environment and a set of controls, between standardization and originality. … One wants the computer screen to be a dense and flat information surface, whereas the other insists that it become a window into a virtual space” (pp. 92-93). I cannot agree more and now I know why I get so confused by some interfaces – They tried to balance these two traditions but they failed, unfortunately.